The TV Room: Mr. Robot Season 1, by David Bax
The kind of people who get referred to as “hackers” (that word still sounds corny to me twenty years after Iain Softley’s schlocky movie) are diggers. They spend their time beneath the surface, speaking the language that makes up the muscle behind the face of the modern world. In the groundbreaking first season of Mr. Robot, creator Sam Esmail gave us one of these individuals in Elliot Anderson (Rami Malek), a young man who is as fervently idealistic as he is troublingly mentally unwell. Elliot often wishes he could hack people the way he can other things – one memorable scene has him imagining a “view source” option for human beings; Elliot’s coworkers are suddenly wearing signs around their necks that say things like, “I pretend to love my husband.” One of the lessons Elliot must learn – and among the most poignant of the show’s many observations – is that people are far more complex and, tragically, far more fragile than machines. What makes the series stand out the most, though, is that while Elliot is trying to take apart and study the emotions of himself and others, Esmail is doing the same to the structure of televised storytelling and the role that we the audience play in it.
Elliot works for a third party computer security firm whose biggest account is that of ECorp, the bank/tech company/everything else that holds dominion over the world of the show. They are also the company that intentionally withheld knowledge of health hazards to their factory workers that led to the death of Elliot’s father when he was a boy. When he is recruited by a hacker organization called fsociety, whose goal is to take down ECorp, Elliot sees a way to not only strike a blow against what he sees as consumerist, debt-driven servitude of the masses but also to avenge his father.
Mr. Robot’s politics are not tricky to parse but the degree to which it backs them can be. Generally, it seems that the show would agree with Elliot that unchecked capitalism has resulted in a society in which too much money, control and power are in the hands of a small number of people who do not mean the rest of us well. However, when it comes time to illustrate these things, Esmail often seems more interested in undercutting the apparent straightforwardness of that worldview. Most people, the show points out, are happy being consumers. To say that this means they are brainwashed is arrogant and presumptuous, in addition to being more or less beside the point.
Esmail has no interest in making his series a polemic. He seems to be largely cynical about the ability of people to make positive changes in the world and, even when they do, he shows us impurity in their motivations. Mr. Robot is a show that is far more interested in people than ideals and we’re better off for it. Ideals lie to us by claiming to be cut and dry. People have infinite layers, conflicting and overlapping code for the person-hacker to detangle. The righteous ideals of fsociety threaten to cause collateral damage in the form of people like Elliot’s boss (Michel Gill), a prevailingly decent man whose life could be ruined by the execution of their plan. We also see altruistic crusaders like Elliot’s childhood friend, Angela (Portia Doubleday) become corrupted, step by step, just by getting close to power and money. Esmail even lets us sees things from the point of view of the bad guys. When Bruce Altman’s ECorp executive – one of the men who made the decisions that led to Elliot’s father’s death – is asked if such things ever give him pause, he says yes, they do. Then he says, “But then you go home and you have dinner, you know, and you wake up the next morning.” It’s one of the most chilling scenes of the season but it’s also a nearly sympathetic look at how terrible things done in the course of a day’s work can be so easily folded into the routine.
The ultimate goal of fsociety, though, has nothing to do with that executive’s callous banality. It has to do with erasing the debt of every one of ECorp’s customers the world over. If that sounds similar to the plot of Fight Club, you’re right and the show is well aware of it, even incorporating a piano version of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” in the penultimate episode. The show is full of such references. You may have noticed Elliot has the same last name as Neo in The Matrix. And when fsociety’s leader, Mr. Robot himself (Christian Slater, as good as he’s ever been), details his worldview to Elliot while on a Ferris wheel, the nod to The Third Man is not subtle. These aren’t just for fun, though. Esmail is intentionally engaging our familiarity with these stories in order to question our compliance in them. Elliot, especially when not taking his meds, can’t always tell the difference between reality and imagination. Mr. Robot wants us to question where the lines are too. How invested are we in this fiction? To what extent are we watching simply because we know how things will unfold and we look forward to the mayhem, even when it means danger to the characters, who consider themselves real whether we believe they are or not? Esmail blurs the boundaries that we believe keep us safe from fiction. As the season goes on, he allows for fewer black space or ring-outs between an act break and the commercials and then slips the occasional ad for ECorp in with the usual spots.
In breaking through these boundaries, the show is highlighting our dependence on the artifice of a television show and employing that as a metaphor for our dependence on artifice everywhere, in our social interactions and our assumptions about the worth of money and so on and so on. Abstractions of abstractions should, in theory, remove us further from the central truth. Mr. Robot, though, only uses these diffusions to contrast the stark reality of being a human being and how powerful – in ways both helpful and destructive – our relationships with other human beings can be.